After the initial success of the Dennis Erickson era quickly petered out into four years of mediocrity, Todd Graham was a breath of fresh air, leading the team to 18 wins and representing the North division in the PAC 12 championship game. Tough losses to Stanford and Texas Tech in the last two games took some of the shine off the season, but Graham has the team competing for conference titles. Can he actually win one in 2014?
The greatest boon for the Sun Devils will be the return of senior quarterback Taylor Kelly, who is entering his third year as a starter, and has gotten steadily better each year. Kelly is an excellent dual-threat who passed for 3635 yards and 28 TDs (12 interceptions) last season, and finished second on the team with 608 yards and another 9 scores. Kelly has his head-scratching moments, but the offense could be in severe trouble if he goes down with an injury, as there is little in the way of experience behind him.
Jaelen Strong is the only returning full-time starter at receiver, but he is one of the best in the conference. Last season he caught 75 passes for 1122 yards and 7 TDs in his first year out of junior college, despite not joining the team until August. Another JUCO, Eric Lauderdale, could very likely be joining him as a starter this season, although competition for spots will be tough. Another potential starter is Cameron Smith, who was banged up most of last season, catching just eight passes for 129 yards. Tight end Chris Coyle will be missed, but De’Marieya Nelson will endeavor to replace him.
The biggest loss on offense may be Marion Grice, who doesn’t boast the lofty stats of some of his peers, but he usually came through when his team needed him. Last season he gained 996 yards and scored 14 TDs, despite missing the last three games. Replacing him will be exciting DJ Foster, who played mostly in the slot last season, but moved to running back when Grice went down and gained 318 of his 501 rushing yards and 4 of his 6 TDs in those three games. He’s also a threat as a receiver, adding another 63 receptions, gaining 653 yards and scoring 4 times. Deantre Lewis is a capable reserve, while incoming JUCO De’Chavon Hayes could prove to be an electrifying change of pace runner.
The offensive line should be in good shape again, despite the loss of all-PAC 12 left tackle Evan Finkenberg and center Kody Koebensky. Evan Goodman was Finkenberg’s backup last season and will be given a chance to win the starting job after redshirting last season, but Jamil Douglas could move in from left guard if Goodman can’t live up to his billing. Nick Kelly is a former junior college transfer who backed up Koebensky last season and is ready to make the job his own this season.
The defense was one of big plays last season. They sure made plenty, registering 40 sacks and 33 turnovers, but they allowed their fair share too, something which was prevalent in their losses. Now they’ve a major rebuild/reload, with nine starters needing to be replaced. The defensive line was cleared out, losing stars Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, but an influx of JUCOs will boost their depth. One of those junior college guys, defensive tackle Dalvon Stuckey, is a former Auburn recruit who will be expected to contribute from day one. Defensive end Darrius Caldwell was also expected to start, but he failed to meet the academic requirements, so the battle for the spot will continue into the summer. Huge Mo Latu (384 pounds) will occupy the other tackle spot, while Marcus Hardison brings great athleticism to the other end.
The Sun Devils usually only run with two linebackers, and one of them Salamo Fiso, will be back this year. As a freshman last season he made 71 tackles, 5½ for loss, with 3 sacks. True freshman DJ Calhoun has been lights out so far in camp, and looks to have the other starting job sewn up already. If there’s one concern here, it is the youth at such a key position. Talent is not a concern though.
Free safety Damarious Randall is the only returning starter in the secondary, but he’s a good one. Last season he had 71 tackles, 5½ for loss, 3 interceptions (1 TD) and 3 passes broken up. He also forced a couple of fumbles. Joining him at the rear will be Marcus Ball, who would have started last season but for a camp injury that put his career on hold for a year. Lloyd Carrington made 25 tackles and 1 interception as a reserve, and should get a chance to start this season. With Rashad Wadood transferring, JUCO Kweishi Brown looks to be the frontrunner for the other cornerback spot. The “Spur”, a hybrid linebacker-safety spot, will be manned by Viliami Moeakiola, who was the top reserve last season, making 21 tackles. He has the size and speed to be an impact player at the position.
Two specialists return, but only kicker Zane Gonzalez looks to be a shoo-in after hitting 25 of 30 field goals in 2013. Punter Matt Haack only played in six games, and didn’t quite nail down the job, but he has plenty of potential. Returners Grice and Robert Nelson are gone, but with all the talent on the team, the Sun Devils should be able to find a couple of guys who can return effectively. The coverage units could stand to improve.
With all the returning offensive talent, one would imagine the Sun Devils will have plenty of problems on defense next season. Graham worked hard at plugging the gaps with junior college transfers, and it may stand him in good stead. The ASU offense looks like it could be explosive, and may just need a couple of stops to win games, although that’s not an ideal scenario for any team. The schedule is tough, but the only worrisome non-conference game is Notre Dame, who come to Tempe. In league play, the Sun Devils avoid Oregon from the North division, but also miss out on Cal. Even with all their losses, this is a talented team, and they should be good for eight wins this year. Whether they can repeat their division crown may be beyond them.